Once upon a time, the term “conspiracy theory” had a reasonably clear meaning. It meant the idea that some shadowy group, international in scope, is pulling all the strings in world affairs and controlling us without our knowing it. The group could be the Bavarian Illuminati, International Bankers, Elders of Zion, or some combination of similar groups.
The idea still has its supporters. There’s something satisfying about a unified theory to explain all the crazy things in the world. The term has drifted, though. Today, all it means is “You’d have to be nuts to believe that.” Conspiracy theories don’t even need conspirators any more. If you search the Web, you’ll discover that alleged Bigfoot and Nessie sightings, assertions of ghostwriting, and claims that Elvis faked his death are all included.
What is a conspiracy theory?
Merriam-Webster defines a conspiracy theory as “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.” Clearly there are real conspiracies. Conspiracy to commit a crime is itself a crime, and people have been convicted of it. Unless you think all those trials were rigged (by a conspiracy?), some of the claims must be true. We read about “9/11 conspiracy theories,” but the straightforward and widely accepted account says terrorists plotted together to hijack and crash the planes, headed by the powerful Osama Bin Laden.
Some real conspiracies sound like what we usually think of as “conspiracy theory” stuff. In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed “Operation Northwoods,” which would have authorized acts of violence in order to make Cuba appear responsible. President Kennedy refused to authorize the plan, and it was never carried out, but a number of high military officials backed the proposal.
What counts and what doesn’t is a matter of convenience. A Reuters article said, “Trump also asked Zelenskiy to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.” That’s two claims, one about Ukraine and one about Russia. Saying that Russia interfered is no more or less a conspiracy theory than saying Ukraine interfered. Saying Russia did not interfere isn’t one; can you conspire to not interfere in an election?
The New York Times has reported that a Ukraine court found that prosecutors illegally disclosed information in 2016 that could influence the election. This ruling may have been politically motivated, but it’s not an open-and-shut case that there couldn’t possibly have been interference. Using the term “debunked conspiracy theory” serves to ridicule, not to inform.
Actual claims about conspiracies
What if we take the term at face value and use it simply to mean an assertion that an event was the result of people secretly plotting together? Then some such claims are true and others are false.
This type of explanation is attractive to many people. It’s satisfying to have a villain to blame. Powerful people often don’t have our interests at heart. The reality is more often that people with many different agendas contribute to a state of affairs, but that’s complicated to think about. Powerful people are involved, but they aren’t all working together. Alliances of convenience happen more often than conspiracies, but asserting a conspiracy provides a short-cut explanation. On the other hand, people in high places do sometimes get together behind closed doors for shady purposes.
We should reserve an extra dose of skepticism for claims about secret plots, and we should think about what the conspiracy’s existence would imply. How large does the group behind it have to be? How are they keeping themselves secret? Where does their influence come from? At the same time, we shouldn’t dismiss a claim simply because someone applies the label to it.
When words become meaningless
It isn’t unusual for words in political discourse to degenerate into meaningless epithets. “Fascist” has gone that way; modern usage rarely refers to Mussolini’s doctrines of government and society. “Racist” retains its meaning in many cases, but it has increasingly become a tool for name-calling. “Isolationist” ought to mean isolation from the rest of the world — trade barriers, restrictions on entry and exit, and the like — but it’s usually an epithet directed at people who oppose foreign wars.
A lot of so-called conspiracy theories are just silly, whether they involve secret plots or not. However, calling an assertion a conspiracy theory can be a rhetorical tactic to discourage people from considering it. Judge a claim by its supporting evidence, not by what its opponents call it.